Secession and Territory

In a couple of hours the Cornell Law School will be hosting a lecture on "Cross-Strait Relations" by Dr. Tsai Ing-wen, the Chair of the Democratic Progressive Party (DDP) in Taiwan. Dr. Tsai's party takes a considerably more pro-independence line than the Chinese Communist Party favors, and so the lecture has prompted the Chinese government to protest. With a great many Chinese students in the university, and with memories of campus reactions to protests regarding Tibet still fresh, it promises to be an interesting afternoon (although hopefully not as interesting as the last time I blogged about a controversial foreign leader coming to my campus, nearly a year ago).

International disputes over secession and territorial integrity are generally portrayed in the Western press through the lens of self-determination and democracy, and certainly where an imperial power annexes a territory to oppress or kill its people, or to steal its natural resources, that portrayal fits. But for quite some time now, we have lacked the intellectual resources to make this case consistently. I don't mean that we Americans have unclean hands, although certainly we do. I mean instead that we have no good general account of what ties territories together.

In the ancient world, conquest was a perfectly legitimate means of territorial expansion. Not so today per the UN Charter. Likewise, the most common reason for either conquest or secession is to consolidate or separate respectively similar or dissimilar ethnic groups. But given the West's faith in the possibility of multi-cultural democracy, ethno-centrism cannot by itself justify the re-drawing of international boundaries.

Historical grievances typically undermine both secessionist and annexation movements, but the difficulty here is that nearly everybody has unclean hands, with the possible exception of people living on land masses that had no archaic homo sapiens residing on them before our Cro Magnon ancestors arrived to wipe them out. Another exception might be made for people in territory purchased for value like, just to pick a random example, ALASKA.

But in general, the overall direction of modern international law and norms makes any change in the territorial status quo presumptively illegitimate, even if the status quo itself arose through illegitimate means. To be sure, nationalism rather than the rule of international law undoubtedly provides a better account of Russian and Chinese policy with respect to annexation and secession movements in their respective vicinities. But our own ambivalent commitments make it difficult for us in the West to criticize except in ways that tie us up in knots or open us up to charges of hypocrisy.

Posted by Mike Dorf